Constituent relationship management (CRM) for local government is in its beginning stages in the United States. While large cities have aggressively adopted the popular customer tracking software, very few counties, mid-sized municipalities and smaller cities have implemented CRM, according to Spencer Stern, a lead partner at Market Strategies Group, a consulting firm.

Even large-city adoption of CRM is relatively new, with nearly 75 percent of those projects completed in the last three years. As a result, the actual base of local government CRM experience in the United States is rather small, though it includes large cities such as Baltimore and Chicago.

In the UK, however, CRM applications became popular among local governments, after the national government strongly encouraged localities to improve electronically offered public services.

In the United States, CRM is likely to take off as well, because it provides clear benefits -- not only does it help governments improve their "customer service" abilities, but it also enhances their other relationships with citizens. CRM increases government accountability by tracking performance and achievement of outcomes, and in the long run, this improved relationship with taxpayers could help public-sector officials regain some of the public trust lost in recent years.

This imperative has led to a surge of interest in CRM among local governments. A study conducted by Market Strategies Group predicts a 20 percent to 25 percent annual growth rate in the local government CRM market, fueled mainly by mid-sized cities, and larger and mid-sized counties. Increased interest in CRM's research and educational opportunities has also been noted by organizations like the Government Finance Officers Association (GFOA), the International City/County Managers Association, the Center for Digital Government and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

To help local governments and other public-sector entities implement CRM, the GFOA evaluated the experiences of three early CRM adopters: Chicago, Westminster and Southwark -- of which the latter two are London boroughs.

Chicago began its CRM program in 1999, when it implemented a 311 call center for all quality-of-life services and police nonemergency services. Since fielding 2.8 million calls in 1999, the center has blossomed into a full-blown CRM system that handled 4.1 million calls in 2005. The system is central to the city's strategy for high-performance government, as it provides a single point of contact with citizens and the means of tracking the successful and timely completion of their requests.

Because of the aforementioned national effort to improve public services in the UK, Westminster -- with a population of 240,000 -- and the Southwark Council have years of experience with CRM.

Lessons learned from these governments' experiences with CRM can be grouped under the following broad categories:

  • performance management: using CRM to propel high-performance government;

  • service delivery improvement: employing CRM to improve outcomes for constituents; and

  • outsourcing: using private-sector capabilities to serve public-sector objectives.

    Performance Management

    Data-driven performance management has been a long-standing goal of public management, but one of the principal barriers has been the lack of access to performance data. CRM captures data on citizen contacts and government's responses to those contacts. This management tool tracks the types of services requested, the time taken to deliver them (i.e., close a service request), citizens' satisfaction with the outcomes, and -- perhaps the most critical element for local government -- the location, such as the address or building, where the services are rendered.

    This data, however, is useless if it can't be accessed in a timely and organized fashion. CRM technology also clears this hurdle by providing a central repository for service data, as well as Web-based business intelligence tools that let the appropriate decentralized operating units access the collected data, and use it quickly to make any necessary service delivery adjustments.

    Because these technologies drastically reduce the cost of data capture and access, they let public managers focus on analysis and decision-making.

    For Chicago, knowing what residents are asking for and what departments are delivering has been a constant, but sometimes elusive, objective. CRM made this vision a reality. In one particular case, CRM-enabled performance management helped the city radically improve street quality.

    Chicago receives more than 100,000 street defect complaints per year. The largest potholes -- pavement or sewer cave-ins -- are real hazards that can result in vehicle damage and unsafe streets. However, it often took city workers a month to fix them while residents continued to call about the same issue. CRM data analysis revealed two main causes for these delays. First, the urgency of some requests was occasionally misdiagnosed; and second, the responsibility for addressing service requests was not clearly defined between the departments of Water Management and Transportation.

    To fix the problem, the city's 311 call center formulated better questions for callers to help distinguish regular potholes from more urgent cave-ins. Then, the city made several improvements to the service request flow after the 311 center took the initial call. Interdepartmental communication was improved and unnecessary steps were eliminated from the process.

    With fewer misdirected work orders, the response time for pavement cave-ins requests dramatically decreased from 11.6 days in 2005 to 2.4 days in 2006. In addition, the time for completing sewer cave-in repairs went from 23.1 to 19.1 days despite workload increase for these crews, according to the mayor's office

    Successful integration of CRM and performance management occurs when local governments and their CIOs, follow these three principles:

    Principle #1 -- A solid performance management strategy is required. Although CRM removes the traditional data accessibility barrier to performance management, data alone won't lead to service improvements. A coherent strategy, laid down by top leadership, is necessary to make the most out of the acquired data. With the information in hand, leaders must determine whether performance is on target, make decisions based on this analysis and hold staff responsible for the results.

    Making staff accountable requires identifying clear performance targets. That's why each request handled by Chicago's 311 center has predetermined deadlines. For example, the replacement of a garbage cart should take no more than seven days. This lets the city track the rate at which service requests are fulfilled on time.

    Once performance standards are defined, their importance must be reinforced. When officials from the mayor's office, budget office and 311 office meet weekly with department heads to review performance, CRM data is the first topic of discussion. As a result, the 40,000-person municipal work force knows that leadership is monitoring their performance and that a timely response to 311 calls is mandatory.

    Incentives are an important part of a performance management strategy. Chicago uses CRM data to promote healthy competition within its work force. The data lets management compare employees' performance in similar areas, and then reward superior achievements. For example, top-performing tow truck drivers are rewarded with the newest trucks -- a working radio and air conditioning are powerful incentives to perform. In the first half of 2006, these methods helped increase productivity by the equivalent of hiring 105 more workers.

    Principle #2 -- Foster a collaborative environment between CRM, operating departments and budget departments. Supporting performance management with good CRM data helps foster a collaborative environment. With a common set of facts, disparate departments can agree on what the problem is and move quickly to discussing the solution. In the case of Chicago's street problems, the 311 department changed its call intake screening to more accurately identify the nature of the problem for the operating departments.

    The cave-in situation teaches another important lesson: use performance management and CRM data to garner the budget department's support in redesigning a process. If the budget department clearly understands the benefits of a change, it can better free up the resources to support it.

    Principle #3 - Develop strong data-mining, analysis and process redesign capabilities. The analysis that led to Chicago's pavement and sewer cave-in repair improvements was done in conjunction with pro bono consultants from local private businesses. The significant improvement using a fairly small amount of analysis prompted the city to increase in-house skills in areas like processing mapping, root cause analysis and Pareto analysis. The city is now training workers with operational knowledge and analytical capacity to apply these management methodologies in their areas.

    Analytical skills not only help improve existing processes, but also help better anticipate demand. Factors such as day of the week, weather, and the time of year can influence the volume and type of demands. Understanding these patterns can help better align the resources to respond.

    Improving Service Delivery

    The initial focus of CRM is to improve communications with citizens and better understand their needs. CRM adopters first experience benefits in front-office citizen contact such as improved call pickup rates and speed, improved rates of inquiry resolution on the first call and decreased call-handling time.

    This significantly improved customer experience, however, raises expectations of government, and the CRM program must follow through on service delivery after the initial contact. This dynamic, coupled with a re-invigoration of performance management, leads to a desire for improvements in back-end service delivery that are on par with those achieved in front-end service request intake. Service delivery improvement occurs along two dimensions: cross-functional cooperation and end-to-end process management.

    Cross-Functional Cooperation

    CRM highlights the fact that many problems can't be solved by a single department acting alone -- cooperation is required. While a solid performance management philosophy encourages cross-departmental cooperation as a natural byproduct, more direct mechanisms can also be employed. Chicago hired several "neighborhood project managers" in the city's 311 office. These managers coordinate services among various departments for a given geographical area, and help bridge information gaps between city departments. Separate departments consider only their own service demands and often don't know how other departments are performing in a particular neighborhood. The neighborhood project managers look at services provided by all departments to the entire neighborhood.

    For example, the city's community policing program requires the project managers to organize beat meetings with residents, and work with police and code enforcement personnel to address citizens' concerns. With the CRM system, project managers can enter service requests and track progress to coordinate initiatives among the various entities involved. CRM also helps project managers better communicate with community groups by giving them the means to report on the status of municipal activities. They can thereby demonstrate the city's responsiveness and effectiveness in addressing community concerns.

    In addition to simple status reporting, CRM actually helps make community groups an active part of solving problems. It keeps project managers abreast of junctures where community involvement is critical -- for instance, when community members must appear in court to testify on poorly maintained properties.

    In the UK, the term joined-up government, which refers to intergovernmental collaboration and information sharing, has been a major feature of public management and local government CRM strategies. CRM creates better data interoperability between jurisdictions, allowing them to combine resources to address shared problems.

    Southwark, a highly urbanized London community, used CRM to coordinate efforts among various agencies to help serve its large transient population. Because this population is very mobile, tracking and servicing at-risk youths is difficult. By working with other agencies to design a standard data model around youth services and by then using CRM to capture and share data on at-risk youths, Southwark and its partner governments in the London metropolitan area can better cater to this particularly hard-to-reach population.

    End-to-End Process Management

    Successful CRM starts with initial constituent contact, and ends with successful service delivery. To emphasize results to residents, CRM requires case management from the beginning to the end of a service request. In the early stages of many CRM deployments, the contact center often considers a task complete once the work request is sent to an operating department or when the work crew is dispatched. With end-to-end process management, a task is monitored until a satisfactory result has been delivered to the resident.

    Complaints of hazardous building conditions in Chicago provide a good example. Repeated calls and outstanding service requests showed that it was taking longer than expected for building owners to comply with the city's Department of Buildings' requirements. Because city employees considered each step of the process separately, delays and errors often surfaced later on.

    At the front end, inspectors were deployed in a timely fashion and even prioritized their work based on the infraction's severity. But often lost were the other steps, including searching titles for recent building ownership information, completing data entry of the inspection results, and scheduling administrative hearing court dates. All of these steps had to be tracked and coordinated. By mapping out the process with CRM, from intake to adjudication, the city identified and remedied the process gaps, and implemented error-checking procedures.

    One important solution was to implement an interface that would let 311 call center agents log service requests directly into the Department of Buildings' system and automatically create a work order for inspection.

    This automated the handoff between 311 and the building authority, thereby eliminating the potential for communication failure. The interface also returns updates to 311 so that residents can be informed of the status of their request.

    The city is also working to implement other streamlining technologies, such as mobile computers for inspectors to enter data directly into the system (eliminating handoffs to data entry clerks) and automatic triggering of a hearing in the city's administrative system.

    With the CRM-based system, an inspection is not considered complete until the violator has demonstrated at an administrative hearing that the violation has been corrected. This system lets the mayor's office easily monitor the results of this critical process, assign responsibility for key tasks and enforce accountability.

    Process improvement lets organizations achieve the targets defined by their performance management strategy. The following principles should be considered when pursuing process improvement.

    Principle #1 - Help departments communicate and cooperate. Joint meetings to review performance data and analyze processes are an essential first step. Human resources specifically devoted to bridging functional divides, like Chicago's neighborhood project managers, can be used to achieve even better coordination of resources.

    Principle #2 - Look beyond your organizational boundaries to solve problems.

    Though interorganizational cooperation can help solve complex public problems, the friction inherent in working with external service partners often makes the process arduous. But as demonstrated with the example of at-risk youth in Southwark, CRM can ease the sharing of information between jurisdictions, resulting in a more coordinated approach to constituent service.

    Principle #3 - Manage processes from initiation to completion. Identifying and capturing constituent concerns is the beginning stage of CRM. Making sure these concerns are resolved efficiently and effectively is the real goal of CRM. End-to-end process management requires that performance be measured against key metrics, that process participants are held responsible for end outcomes of value to citizens, and that ultimate responsibility for performance be placed with a single point of authority. In addition, CRM technology should integrate legacy systems to move work between different applications. Middleware technologies, such as an information bus and a service-oriented architecture, are cost-effective tools that help achieve this integration.

    Principle #4 - Look for similarities between processes and reuse technology where applicable. Optimizing end-to-end processes is easier if the effort doesn't start from the beginning for each process. Southwark and Westminster have found many processes share similarities such that automation and efficiency techniques can be duplicated and transferred. For example, verifying a constituent's identity and eligibility for a social service is often the same regardless of the social service. Hence, the same data model, process workflow and employee training can be reused for all types of eligibility determinations. This notion can also be applied to taking payments -- a process similar in every situation.

    Satisfying Citizen Requests

    While CRM begins with providing constituents with an easy-to-reach contact channel, it can't end without satisfied citizen requests. Realizing a comprehensive constituent care system requires disciplines that go beyond enabling technology and basic customer-care techniques. There must be a structure that defines service delivery standards and holds people accountable for constituent care.

    CIOs and government managers must continuously pursue process improvement to achieve service delivery targets -- this includes finding ways for the diverse resources of a municipal government to better direct their individual capacities toward solving complex community issues; and focusing process management on achieving the end outcomes of greatest value to citizens, rather than on the piecemeal, individual outputs of separate departments.

    Combining CRM with performance management disciplines, can be used by public managers to answer the following questions:

  • How can we get more productivity from our work force?

  • How can we continue to streamline processes?

  • How can we enforce accountability?

    Addressing these questions can help make better use of scarce tax resources, and most importantly, improve residents' quality of life in ways they can see and appreciate.

    Lydia Murray  |  Special to Public CIO
    Shayne C. Kavanagh  |  Contributing Writer